Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
What manner of a man is this, for the winds and the sea obey him?
The Gospels for the Sundays after the Epiphany have as their common theme that they are all incidents from the life of Jesus in which the truth about his person is shown forth or made known. We have heard the incident in the temple when Jesus was twelve years old, his first miracle or sign at Cana in Galilee in which he changed water into wine, how he cleansed the leper and healed the centurion’s servant. In today’s Gospel we hear how Jesus calmed the storm. The climate of the Sea of Galilee was noted for sudden storms. On one occasion when Jesus and his disciples were travelling on a boat in the sea a great storm arose so that the boat was covered with water, but Jesus was asleep in the boat. The disciples awaked him and said, “Lord, save us, we perish. And Jesus saith to them, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? Then rising up he commanded the winds and the sea, and there came a great calm.” The disciples wondered saying, “What manner of a man is this, for the winds and the sea obey him?”
Classically there are two ways of understanding the miracles in the Gospels. The first is to see them as evidence of the divinity of Jesus. They showed, as the celebrated Tome of Pope Leo the Great put it, that he was divine as well as human. That he hungered, he was weary and he suffered showed his humanity, but that he worked miracles showed his divinity. He is therefore rightly seen as the Word incarnate, true God and true man. But against this it has been correctly pointed out that the miracles do not in themselves suggest divinity. There were miracles wrought through Moses, through the prophets Elijah and Elisha in the time of the old covenant, and also have been miracles in the lives of the saints in the subsequent history of the Church. The immediate response in the life of Jesus to his miracles was not that he was divine, but that a great prophet like Moses or Elijah had risen up among them. It also seems that Jesus discouraged putting too much faith in the evidential value of miracles. When asked for a sign he said that it was a wicked and adulterous nation that looked for a miraculous sign. Indeed, it was the devil who tempted him in the wilderness to perform such a miraculous sign to show himself to the world as the Son of God. Yet he rejected such a display of power as the work of the devil.
At the opposite extreme the second understanding of the miracles in the Gospels seeks to either deny them or to explain them away. It is said that the miracles in the Gospels are the products of a pre-scientific age which only accepted them because the people at that time did not understand that the world was a closed continuum of cause and effect. It is sometimes also suggested that whereas the so called healing miracles can be accepted as the result of the impact of a charismatic personality on the lives of the people, the so called nature miracles cannot be accepted. Against this view it can be said that it is far from clear that the world is a closed continuum of cause and effect. The older mechanistic view of science is increasingly being called into question by scientists themselves and it has been said that the universe is better understood in terms of clouds rather than clocks. The world is better seen as the result of constantly changing possibilities rather than a clock like mechanism that once it has been started cannot change. In this context extraordinary events or miracles can indeed be said to happen. It is also not a sound historical method to try to evaluate ancient sources by what may seem to us most fitting in ordinary circumstances. The whole point of the Gospels is that the circumstances of the life of Jesus were not ordinary and the miracles in the Gospels testify to this.
But if the miracles are not to be seen as either incontrovertible evidence of the divinity of Jesus or to be arbitrarily rationalised and explained away, how should we understand them? It is best to begin from the ancient Jewish worldview that God had created the world good and made man in his own image. But the human race had fallen into sin and had distorted the God given image that it had been created to reflect. In some mysterious way this fallen state extended to the whole of creation. Nature was red in tooth and claw, a world in which the weak triumph over the strong. But God had chosen one people in whose seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed. He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and given them the Law through Moses. But they had remained fallen and sinful and far from as they ought to be. The prophets who called them back to faithfulness to the covenant looked forward to a time when the seemingly insoluble tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be would finally be resolved and the wolf would dwell with the lamb. This would be the coming of the Kingdom of God among men, when his will would finally be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Now Jesus proclaimed that this coming Kingdom of God, though still future in its fullness, was now breaking into history in his person and ministry, in his words and mighty works. In his parables he explained that the Kingdom of God was now breaking into history, in his miracles he acted out the nature of the Kingdom of God in restoring the broken relations between God and man. It was the fulfilment of the hope of Isaiah about the eyes of the blind being opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. But this work of restoration also extended to the natural order such as in today’s Gospel of Jesus calming the storm. The creation of the world had brought order into being and now in the work of restoration a new creation was being brought into being in which the storms that beset the old creation would finally be calmed. Understood in this way the miracles of the Gospels are not simply evidence of the divinity of Jesus nor to be rationalised and explained away, but rather an integral part of the coming of the Kingdom of God into history. They are signs, as St. John calls them, that show forth the glory of God in the face of Jesus. In this sense they do manifest the divinity of Jesus, not by the type of open display of divine power that Jesus repudiated as the work of the devil, but rather as signs of the true nature of the Kingdom of God that was now breaking into history in his person and ministry.
The placing of some of the more noteworthy of Jesus’ miracles as the Gospels for these Sundays after the Epiphany is an excellent way of helping us to understand their true purpose. They are neither simply the extraordinary deeds of a wonderworker, nor to be rationalised and explained away, but rather to be understood as signs of how the Kingdom of God came to men in the person and ministry of Jesus. Confident in that faith we can look forward to when the work of restoration between God and man will finally be complete, when God’s kingdom will finally come on earth as it is in heaven, in that new heaven and that new earth when the wolf will finally dwell with the lamb.